R11 Preview: SE Melbourne Phoenix vs Sydney Kings

When: 7.30pm (AEDT), Thursday 10 February 2022

John Cain Arena, Melbourne

ESPN; Kayo; Sky Sports NZ

Who won the last time?
Sydney 84
(Cooks 19, Glover 15, Martin 12) d SE Melbourne 73 (Creek 22, Qi 17, Le’afa 13) – Round 3, Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney

The Phoenix walked into Sydney in Round 3 the hottest team in the Hungry Jack’s NBL after an unbeaten start. They walked out with their tails between their legs after the Kings jumped them 29-14 in the opening term and cruised to an easy win. Sydney’s defence never allowed the visitors’ any flow, while South East Melbourne had no answer for Xavier Cooks at the other end.

What happened last start?

The Kings put on a similar display against New Zealand last Sunday, dominating the paint as they held the Breakers to a miserly 30 per cent from two-point range and cleaned the glass with 37 defensive boards from 46 Kiwi misses. Overall, Chase Buford’s men didn’t shine offensively, but DJ Vasiljevic filled the breach with a sparkling 23 points in 28 minutes.

South East Melbourne were the paint warriors in Wollongong as they pulled out a remarkable victory to move back into second spot, prevailing in crunch time despite having just one recognised reserve. They outscored the Hawks 70-54 on ‘ones and twos’, shot 64 per cent inside the paint, and grabbed 74 per cent of d-boards and 39 per cent of o-boards.


Who’s in form?

Ryan Broekhoff – With Dane Pineau out, and Zhou Qi and Brandon Ashley limited by foul trouble, Illawarra should have dominated the Phoenix on the glass. Enter Broekhoff, the 201cm Boomer reeling in 16 caroms, including 14 d-boards in a game-changing display. Rowdy has averaged 8.6 defensive rebounds in his past five games, with South East Melbourne winning four, and the Phoenix are 8-1 over the past two seasons when he pulls in six d-boards or more.


DJ Vasiljevic – Sydney has won three of their past four games. In those Ws, Vasiljevic has averaged 19.7 points and four triples at 44 per cent, in their sole loss to Tassie he scored five points and went 0/4 from deep. The good news for Kings fans is in DJ’s first five games back from his Achilles injury he didn’t score more than eight points. In six games since he’s averaged 16.3 points at 42 per cent from distance and only once failed to reach at least 13 points.

Who needs to be?

Izayah Le’afa – Could the challenge get any bigger for the Phoenix? With COVID rules already side-lining Kyle Adnam, they’ve now claimed star import Xavier Munford too, the driving force behind their wonderful win in Wollongong. Not only will Le’afa have to play his usual high level of defence on Jaylen Adams, he’ll need to be a key creator from on-balls.


Jarell Martin – With Jordan Hunter out for the year and Makur Maker out for a significant stretch, much has been asked of ‘Rell and he has delivered. Averaging 31 minutes the past five games – up from 26 last season – and delivered 17.6ppg at 51 per cent and 10.6rpg. His ability to draw whistles on the foul-prone Qi and Ashley could be a key on Thursday night.


Who’s statting up?

 - In Zhou Qi’s past three wins he’s averaged 17ppg at 74 per cent, 8.7 rebounds, 3.7 o-boards and 3 blocks. In his past three losses those numbers are 7.7 points at 64 per cent, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 o-boards and 2 blocks

 - Jaylen Adams’ past five games have delivered 24.2ppg, 6.2apg, 5.4rpg and 2spg. However, after shooting 15/31 from deep in the first three of that span, he’s made just 2/16 in the past couple  

 - In seven wins, South East Melbourne are +71 on points from turnovers. In three losses they are -18

 - In six wins the Kings are only allowing 16.2 two-point field goals at 39 per cent. In seven losses those numbers rise to 20.9 at 53 per cent

Who’s matching up?

Mitch Creek v Xavier Cooks – There was a serious triangle going on last time the teams met, with Cooks defending Creek and Creek defending Martin. The winner was X, who limited the Phoenix superstar to a 44 per cent shooting night with 5 turnovers, while exploiting South East Melbourne’s slower bigs to rack up 19 points at 50 per cent and five offensive rebounds himself.

Cooks had just five points against New Zealand, but was a game-high +24 as he did everything else. Zhou Qi will again dare the X-man to shoot, but the addition of Ashley since last meeting gives versatility in how the Phoenix can defend. Cooks’ biggest job is slowing Creek, who has played 37 minutes per game the past four, averaging 21.3ppg at 69 per cent inside.

Who’s talking the talk?

This livewire Sydney Kings team is nothing if not aggressive, and after scoring just five points on seven shots in the loss to Tasmania, shooting guard DJ Vasiljevic soon heard about it.

“I was a bit passive on Friday and my dad told me that,” Vasiljevic said on Sunday.

In the win over New Zealand he took 15 attempts, seven from inside and eight from outside as he found the perfect balance to keep the defence honest.

“Chase told me just to be aggressive, come out and not force anything but play my game, and I think I did that and it kick-started the team,” Vasiljevic said.

“A lot of people are going to play me tight and close out, all you have to do is shot fake and rip-and-go, so if I can mix that in with the three-point shooting I become hard to guard and that’s what I did.”

As is his trademark, Buford acknowledged what he could have done better from a coaching standpoint with Vasiljevic in Hobart, and the importance of that for the team.

“Looking back, one of the things I did poorly last game was not look to get DJ involved enough, so definitely came in with a mindset that we've got a great scorer, great shooter here that we have to take advantage of,” he said.

“I think DJ helps Jaylen with the space he creates and the gravitational pull on the defence, those guys came back to the line-up together … and I think since we’ve inserted them back in the starting line-up we've seen our offence flow a lot freer.”

That dynamic duo is a lot freer when the Kings are running off stops, and their defence has excelled in recent weeks. In their past two wins over Perth and New Zealand, they have allowed just 11.5 two-point baskets at 34 per cent.

“Another great defensive performance, to hold them 32 per cent shooting, even though they went 34 per cent from three is really good,” Buford said.

“Thirty percent from twos, I thought our defence at the rim was terrific, the way X and Rell guarded down there, these (guards) were fighting over screens, really, really pleased with the defensive performance and then we rebounded the ball terrifically as well.”

The reason the Kings’ keyway has become as castle is Buford’s calculated gamble to clog the paint and give the likes of Luke Travers and Ousmane Dieng space.

“At times this year we’ve played guys where we plug off of them,” Buford said.

“We did it against Travers a few games ago was good for us .. same with Dieng tonight, he hit some shots, but there were a bunch of other possessions where we ended up coming away with a stop because of the shifts from DJ or the help from those guys.

“You have to live sometimes with a guy you feel you can maybe make beat you.”

With Xavier Munford and Kyle Adnam out and Cam Gliddon in doubt, the Kings may be able to employ similar tactics on a Phoenix team short of shooters, but one man they won’t leave alone is Ryan Broekhoff, despite his 3/20 return from range the past three games.

“Part of being a good shooter is the gravity you have on the defence, so X probably reaps a lot of the rewards of that playing the pick-and-roll game, hitting rollers and you dare come off Rowdy you’re in no-man’s land some times,” stand-in coach Judd Flavell said.

“Even if he’s not shooting he’s still a shooting threat, I wouldn’t step off him because in practice he shoots the lights out of it. We've just got to continue to be patient.”

The real issue for South East Melbourne, whose offence is driven by Munford and Adnam from ball-screen action, is how are they going to generate enough good looks to post a winning score?

Last time in Sydney they generated just six points from turnovers and scored a season-low 73 points, so Flavell is hoping his team brings the defensive juice on Thursday.

“Sydney they're rolling as well, can put a lot of points on. Where it all starts for us is on the defensive end, if we’re able to get stops and then take care of our business at that end of the floor we have a good flow and a good rhythm going the other way,” he said.

“That’s kind of been a little bit of our inconsistency throughout the season, something we want to continue to build is knowing and expecting us to be a defensive team. We’re going to demand that but it’s still a work in progress.”

The Phoenix have won four of their past five, Sydney three of their past four, who will keep their hot run going at the Fire Pit on Thursday night?


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